Youth organisations pull out of Oranga Tamariki campaign after feeling used

The campaign cost  $2.4 million.
The campaign cost $2.4 million. Photo credit: RNZ

Phil Pennington for RNZ

Two youth organisations have pulled out of a $2.4m Oranga Tamariki campaign saying it verges on exploiting young people.

But despite their withdrawal, the children's ministry name-checks them as if they are still part of it.

Oranga Tamariki (OT) launched the Hear Me, See Me campaign 13 months ago.

It tells the online stories of a handful of anonymous young people, some of whom have been in state care, aimed at motivating the public to care and offer support.

Tupua Urlich has pulled out of the campaign's advisory board, saying it was not interested in his view and that OT had no place doing advocacy.

"They have one of the least trusted government agencies in the country and they're trying to push this?

"You know, they love to partner with people and do all the talking. It was another situation where that was taking place," he said.

"I cannot recall ... being the only one who had experienced their care, being the only one in the room with those experiences, I can't recall being asked one question around design or development of Hear Me, See Me."

Just two of the four NGOs originally on the advisory board are still there - one, Save the Children, said it was strongly advocating for children's rights on it. The board is dominated by seven government agencies.

Another group that has quit is Yes Disability.

"I felt like I was just there to be a part of like a tick-box kind of thing, not as my voice as a disabled person," said its representative, youth facilitator Niah Lovo.

"That was a conversation that wasn't ready to be had with the Hear Me, See Me."

She had her last involvement about last September and had not heard from the ministry since.

Yes Disability chief executive Sonia Thursby said this was not unusual.

"When you work with government departments, they like a diverse group. And they will often come to us ... for a young person with a disability. So she felt that she was there to tick that box," Thursby said.

OT said it had had no formal resignations.

The campaign has so far spent $600,000, slowed down by COVID, the agency said.

A senior manager Jane Fletcher said concerns had been raised in the past which it worked hard to address.

"We are concerned to hear we may not have addressed them as effectively as we could have. For this I apologise and welcome the opportunity to rectify" things.

Hear Me, See Me grew out of two 'children in communities' survey in 2017 and 2019, which found reluctance to support a child who was in state care. A third survey had just begun to measure the cost-benefit of Hear Me, See Me, OT said.

An OIA response said the online audience numbers "are within a satisfactory benchmark". Website visits dropped off sharply five months after its launch in March 2021, at the end of a six-month advertising campaign. It had recorded 1.8m engagements.

Urlich said he wanted it to work as he had been through the stigma of being in care, and breaking that down was important.

"I tried to stick in there" but "there was no room to actually shape" it. He did not tell OT he was quitting.

At one point, virtual reality was suggested to tell the stories - "we're talking about immersing people virtually into others trauma?"

He gave "full credit" to the young people but said he kept asking what support was given to them and the answers were "very vague".

"Each time we ask young people to share their experiences or speak on difficult things for them, we are obligated to make sure that we are not just having them open up to fulfil our agenda or get what we want and then send them on their merry way.

"And that's happening a lot."

He now questions the whole approach, saying the $2m would be better off going to genuine, community-led advocacy.

Oranga Tamariki's Jane Fletcher said the young people who'd voiced their stories were all over 18 years old and had final editorial approval. They could tell them anonymously and any risks were carefully worked through with them, their whānau and support networks.

Oranga Tamariki did not agree to an interview and instead put out a long statement.

The campaign funding comes in part out of OT baseline funding. It said over 100 community organisations were "closely associated" with it.

Save the Children's Jacqui Southey said the campaign was already designed by the time it got involved but the ministry told it there had already been a lot consultation with young people.

They knew that in one young woman's case her whānau were involved and followed up on, and the other storytellers appeared supported, Southey said.

The board had had only a few email communications in recent months and the OT team seemed "at a bit of a standstill", she added.

Niah Lovo applauded getting other young people's stories told - but said her efforts to get a disabled person's story told came to nothing.

When the board handed out tasks, she was told "up to you, all in your own time" as if she less competent, she said.

"They didn't know how to have conversations with me."

She has not heard from the ministry since last year.

"We're so used to no follow-up on, like, consultations that when we do get ourselves into a project, and no one talks to us once it's done, it's like, 'Oh, whatever'."

Sonia Thursby said OT should remove Yes Disability's name from its website.

But this, too, was not unusual from government agencies, for them to be name-checked regardless of input, she said.